Get your patients up to speed on genomics

November 7, 2005

Most of our patients have no clue what genomics is, much less the ramifications of genetic testing, pre-embryonic stem cell research, and DNA preventive medicines.

Most of our patients have no clue what genomics is, much less the ramifications of genetic testing, pre-embryonic stem cell research, and DNA preventive medicines.

But they need a clue. Understanding the exploding field of DNA science-which includes gene therapy, genetic testing, and, yes, the politically charged arena of stem cell therapy-is key to our patients' future outcomes and quality of life. to educate them is now, and the ones who are best inclined to educate them are us.

That's right, pharmacists. I've recently begun working with an exciting new organization (with pending nonprofit status) called the Genomics Education Institute. GEI has struck a deal with Pharmacists Planning Services Inc. (PPSI), a public health advocacy group in California. PPSI will help GEI get brochures, booklets, and posters demystifying genomics into virtually every neighborhood drugstore.

For most Americans, these are difficult issues to contend with, but they cannot be ignored. Every month, issues come up before state and U.S. legislatures that will directly affect each and every one of our patients.

A big one that GEI and pharmacists can tackle is DNA privacy. If you or your wife were to discover from a genetic test that you had the BRCA 1 or 2 (Breast Cancer Gene 1 or 2) mutation predisposing you or her to breast cancer, that is powerful knowledge. The question then is, should insurance companies get access to this information?

Not surprisingly, insurance companies are in Washington, D.C., lobbying for their right to this knowledge. Yet your average patient doesn't know what's at stake. She or he should.

Now consider pre-embryonic stem cell therapy. To take a stand on this complex and controversial new science, patients need to first understand what a pre-embryonic stem cell is, and how it differs from stem cells derived from bone marrow or cord blood or by other means. One of the most important goals GEI hopes to accomplish is to help Americans find their way around this science-this science that only recently has landed on the front pages of our patients' local newspapers.

Once our patients understand the basics, they will be far better able to decide issues such as the ones being debated in Washington and many state legislatures right now. For instance, should research on pre-embryonic stem cells-considered immoral by some religious groups-be state or federally funded?

Many patients probably aren't even aware that these pre-embryos are only a few days old, not even to the "twinning point," the point where a pre-embryo either splits into developing twin (or triplet) humans or remains single.

It's true that this is beyond our patients' average 10th-grade level of science knowledge, but pharmacists have traditionally taken the role of educating the public in the areas most important to them. Already, in nearly every neighborhood pharmacy, patients can find objective and easy-to-read materials on various medical issues, from nicotine withdrawal to diabetes to hepatitis. Genomics could be a new area to take on.

I believe that GEI will add DNA-related materials to that list, and it will greatly benefit all of our patients. I am actively working with GEI to make this happen. In fact, PPSI plans to declare April 2006 National DNA Month. It will be a great opportunity for pharmacies everywhere to dispatch DNA news from the front, to get patients up to speed.

I say, the sooner the better.

THE AUTHOR, formerly the owner of a pharmacy in California, now works for a chain in the state.